Review: Assassins, Chichester Festival Theatre

Polly Findlay’s insightful reimagining of Assassins really hits home with a brilliant cast at Chichester Festival Theatre

“Everybody’s got the right to be different
Even though at times they go to extremes.”

The world of contemporary politics offers fertile, if fast-moving ground for inspiration for many a theatre director and from the moment you enter Chichester Festival Theatre for this revival of the 1990 Stephen Sondheim musical Assassins, it is clear that Polly Findlay hasn’t held back one tiny bit. Kid Rock and Kenny Chesney (‘She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy’ anyone…?!) boom through the stereo, perma-smiling functionaries in bedazzled Uncle Sam outfits exhort us to deliver Mexican waves (good luck with stony-faced press night reviewers ?), we’re in full-on Trump rally mode complete with a countdown clock.

And once the curtain is peeled back on the further reaches of Lizzie Clachan’s design, from its Oval Office to its long catwalk out into the audience, we find ourselves immersed in the world of 24/7 rolling news. It’s an ingenious prism through which to navigate John Weidman (book) and Sondheim’s (music and lyrics) conceit of gathering together a group of individuals who attempted to assassinate sitting Presidents of the USA, and in some cases succeeded, the denigration of US political discourse spearheaded by the influence of the Murdochs and Fox News reflected here in the almost gameshow nature of the way it plays out.

It’s a pointed way of reading the material but as the Mar-a-Lago revelations come flooding in (that bathroom!), it feels entirelty apposite. The Proprietor becomes Trump himself (a brilliantly effective Peter Forbes), pulling the strings and proffering weapons right, far right and centre. The role of the Balladeer is split into a trio of brightly artificial Fox News-type presenters (Liam Tamne, Lizzy Connolly and Samuel Thomas absolutely nailing the tone). The orchestra, expertly led by Jo Cichonska, sit out front in sunken pits, theshining red of their MAGA caps shining out for all to see. It’s all perfectly, ideologically brash but not so much as to be overwhelming.

The production is blessed with a crack company too, who provide their snapshots of US history through the vignettes that tells their stories. Harry Hepple’s Charles Guiteau is wonderfully maniacal in his delusions that led him to shoot James A Garfield, Nick Holder is terrifying in Samuel Byck’s grubby Santa suit delivering screeds against Richard Nixon (and Leonard Bernstein!), Amy Booth-Steel continues her excellent work in conveying so much character with limited time as Sara Jane Moore with her abortive attempt to off Gerald Ford, and Danny Mac is powerfully effective as John Wilkes Booth whose shooting of Lincoln ostensibly set the template here.

Sondheim’s melodies remain evergreen, ‘Everybody’s Got The Right’ the archetypal toe-tapper of an opener, bluntly reprised as a chilling finale, and Jack Shalloo (John Hinckley) and Carly Mercedes Dyer (Lynette Fromme) have a ball in ‘Unworthy of Your Love’, going full on Whitney and Mariah at the duet’s close. But what lingers longest through this insightful treatment is the way in which we see how these tales came from the fringes of US society at the time, yet today that fringe has been ushered ever closer to the mainstream. As so starkly depicted by the final image of this Oval Office evoking the January 6th insurrection, it is a chilling reminder of the endpoint of populist politics.

Running time: 105 minutes (without interval)
Photos: Johan Persson
Assassins is booking at Chichester Festival Theatre until 24th June

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